Designing a Vibrant Life with Atopic Dermatitis: Joannes Story
Joanne Litz canâ€™t remember a time when she didnâ€™t have atopic dermatitis and wasnâ€™t struggling to find an effective treatment.
Now 62 years old, the Philadelphia native was first diagnosed with the condition, a type of eczema, as a 3-year-old, when her mother took her to a dermatologist because Litz had developed rashes all over her body. That dermatologist prescribed coal tar, which her mother had to apply all over Litzâ€™s body in the evening.
The messy, sticky treatment, which she kept on overnight, made it hard for her to sleep.
â€œThatâ€™s kind of where it started,â€ she recalls.
Litz has battled eczema symptoms, including rashes and itchy skin, intermittently ever since. Still, through it all, she hasnâ€™t let it impact her creative spirit: She and her husband, Dennis Wolk, have run a clothing company called Steel Pony since 1992, including a brick-and-mortar store in Philadelphiaâ€™s Fabric District since 2015.
She is the main designer of their clothing collections, and her husband designs handbags. The duo uses only eco-friendly processes, fabrics, and dyes, and everything is sewn locally.
â€œSo weâ€™re very artsy-craftsy. I like everything creative,â€ Litz says.
How Eczema Impacts Her Life
Although Litz has run her company for nearly 30 years, it hasnâ€™t always been easy with severe eczema. The rashes and itchy skin can be uncomfortable, even painful, and they make her feel self-conscious, particularly when they appear on her face, because â€œeveryone else can see it,â€ she says.
For years, Litz felt she had few options to clear her skin. When she would go to trade shows on behalf of her company, she had to beg her doctor for prednisone, an oral steroid that suppresses the immune system and treats eczema flares but also comes with a host of side effects if taken for long periods, including osteoporosis and thinning skin.
Joanneâ€™s Eczema Treatment Journey
Even though her symptoms would come and go, Litz was ultimately taking prednisone so often over the years that her dermatologist stopped prescribing it. At the high doses she was taking, the drug was causing her skin to thin to such an extent that â€œI would brush my hand against a wall and my skin would start bleeding,â€ she explains.
Litz knew something needed to change. Over the years, she had tried multiple treatments, including topical creams and a strict elimination diet. According to the National Eczema Association (NEA), some people develop eczema as a result of food allergies and eliminating these foods can help relieve symptoms.
After working with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, though, Litz was unable to definitively determine whether food allergies were the source of her eczema â€“ as a result, diet modifications didnâ€™t relieve her symptoms.
Like many people with the condition, she also tried yoga, tai chi, and qigong, as well as Chinese medicine practices such as acupuncture and acupressure. Although some people have benefited from these approaches, according to the NEA, Litz wasnâ€™t among them.
â€œI tried so many things, and I think if you talk to other people whoâ€™ve had eczema as long as I have, youâ€™ll hear that same story,â€ she says.
Recently, Litz started taking a prescription biologic drug, which requires her to visit her dermatologist every 2 weeks for injections. Because these appointments disrupt her work, sheâ€™s open to trying new treatments as they become available.
The Emotional Toll of Eczema
Although thereâ€™s never a good time to have eczema, Litz says it felt especially fraught during her already awkward teenage years and as a young adult, particularly as she struggled to find an effective treatment. â€œI had rashes all over my body, from head to toe. You know, itâ€™s very depressing as a young person,â€ she notes. â€œAnd even as I got older, I would get very depressed about it.â€
The physical toll of eczema started to wear mentally, too. â€œYouâ€™re itching. Itâ€™s so bad that you wake up and you have sores all over your body, because you donâ€™t even realize youâ€™re scratching, and thereâ€™s blood all over the bed,â€ she notes. â€œAnd thereâ€™s also bad social anxiety because youâ€™ve got it, especially if itâ€™s on your face.â€
Litz experimented with makeup to hide her eczema. â€œI found some foundation thatâ€™s used for scars that actually does cover all those patches,â€ she says.
Advice for Others
Litz believes that the causes of eczema are different for everyone with the condition, and the right treatment may look different, too. For one thing, emotional support is extremely important, and each person will need to find a source of support that works for them, she says.
Along the same lines, Litz advises working to manage stress to help treat eczema and your overall health. According to the NEA, stress can be a trigger for eczema, and for people with the condition, stress may be particularly acute because of the way the brain and body communicate during a flare.
While stress management looks different for everyone, some techniques the NEA suggests are meditation, yoga, and creative hobbies such as painting or chess. And even though sleep can be difficult for people with eczema, taking an antihistamine, enjoying a warm bath, and moisturizing before bed â€” coconut oil works better than traditional moisturizing creams for Litz â€” can help you feel sleepy and make your skin feel less itchy.
â€œYou have to decide for yourself how much you want to change your life to not have eczema,â€ Litz says. â€œBut if you can find something that works, stick with it.â€
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